Over the last several months I have been interviewing individuals about the process of transformation. This has given me the opportunity to interview people who themselves have both been transformed and been a part of the transformation of communities and organizations. One of the most striking things that has come out of these interviews is that for each of these people, their transformation and leadership was not an individual process, rather it occurred in relationships with others, and as a part of communities that created a context for their leadership and transformation to develop and occur. This has led me to wonder if we need to partially turn the concept of leadership upside down, from a focus on individuals to communities that create a context in which leadership can happen.
So often when we think about leadership, we think about an individual who sparks our imagination and then changes the lives of others. In my interviews with these transformative leaders, my interviewees have often directed my attention, not just to themselves, but to others. They have talked about people who opened them up to seeing the world differently. They spoke about people who took risks by giving them opportunities while others mentored them and guided them. They describe being a part of teams that together could take on anything. They also talked about communities and organizations that entrusted them with significant resources so that they could develop their vision. Instead of being drum majors leading a crowd of followers, these people instead described their leadership as embedded in networks of relationships that made their leadership possible.
These people have also described how communities and cultures can block leadership. Some of these people that I have interviewed have been major players within the fossil fuel and mining industries. They talked about how issues such as climate change or ethical extraction of resources can be addressed, but that the aversion to risk and potential failures within corporate culture prevents leadership or meaningful action from occurring. Likewise, in my own experience in churches I have seen how tendencies to treat developing leaders as threats to established officials, or the tendency in the face of challenging times to first cut developing leaders to protect the old guard has prevented entire generations of leadership from developing.
So what if we turned leadership partially on its head. What if we saw leadership as a function of a community? What if we saw leadership as something that happens because there are communities that develop individuals; communities that embrace risk, including the failures that come along with it; communities that together will not only seek out new visions, but put their resources into exploring that vision together. What if we as churches reclaimed our mission of being communities, not led by great leaders, but rather who’s life together created leadership not only for the church, but for the broader society around it.